Great powers surf to conquer

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, March 12, 2015

indian-ocean-bases-180c4Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-nation Indian Ocean tour attests to this region’s critical importance for Indian security, including preventing India’s encirclement by hostile powers. If China were to gain the upper hand in the Indian Ocean region, it will mark the end of India’s great-power ambitions. India thereafter will be seen as merely a sub-regional power whose clout does not extend across South Asia, with Pakistan challenging it in the west and China in the north and south.

India’s tactical and strategic disadvantages along its land frontiers are more than compensated by its immense geographic advantage in the Indian Ocean. Such is peninsular India’s vantage location in the Indian Ocean — the world’s premier energy and trade seaway — that the country is positioned dominantly astride vital sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), including China’s emergent Maritime Silk Road.

Despite India’s inherent maritime leverage, its land-frontier compulsions have instilled a landlocked mindset. With its attention fixated on the disputed land borders, India — far from exploiting its advantage on the maritime front — often has difficulty facing up to the fact that it is a major maritime country. Worse still, India diplomatically neglected the Indian Ocean region in the 25-year period from 1989 when it was governed by coalitions. Tellingly, Modi is the first prime minister to visit Seychelles in 34 years and Sri Lanka in 28 years.

India’s long neglect has become China’s strategic gain. China’s quiet manoeuvring in the Indian Ocean, where it is chipping away at India’s natural-geographic advantage through multibillion-dollar projects along the great trade arteries, draws strength from its more assertive push for dominance in the South and East China Seas.

The Indian Ocean promises to shape the wider geopolitics and balance of power in Asia and beyond. India, however, finds itself on the back foot in its own strategic backyard. According to Jawaharlal Nehru, “History has shown that whatever power controls the Indian Ocean has, in the first instance, India’s sea-borne trade at her mercy and, in the second, India’s very independence itself.” The irony is that this is the only ocean in the world named after a single country.

China has been assiduously pursuing a strategy to build a “string of pearls” across the Indian Ocean so as to gain strategic clout and naval access. By rebranding the “string of pearls” strategy as a “21st-century maritime silk road” project, China has now sought to disguise its real intentions. This signature initiative of President Xi Jinping merely recasts the “string of pearls” strategy in meretriciously benign terms. Stripped of its rhetoric, the Silk Road — just like the “string of pearls” — is designed to redraw Asia’s geopolitical map by making China the preeminent power.

The Silk Road indeed exemplifies China’s use of aid, investment and other leverage to pull littoral states closer to its orbit, including through the construction of seaports, railroads and highways. Such construction may provide a counterpoint to China’s military assertiveness. Yet it is integral to a strategy that fuses soft and hard tactics to bind countries to China’s economy and security and to convince them that it is in their interest to accept China as Asia’s alpha power.

How China blends its economic and military interests was illustrated last autumn by the separate docking of two Chinese submarines at the newly opened, Chinese-majority-owned container terminal at Colombo Harbour. China’s desire for permanent military presence in the Indian Ocean, where it has carried out three deployments, is being whetted by its control of Pakistan’s Gwadar port, located strategically at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz. China has operationally taken over the port it built at Gwadar to develop not its commercial value (which remains unpromising) but its potential as a key naval outpost.

Given the emerging challenge to India in its maritime backyard, Modi must develop a credible strategy to counter it. His charm-offensive tour of regional states with offers of new economic and defence tie-ups marks just a beginning. Modi did well to drop the Maldives from his itinerary, given the political mess there. But he could have delayed his Sri Lanka trip until after the forthcoming parliamentary elections there, especially given the fact that his visit comes barely a month after President Maithripala Sirisena’s India tour.

In keeping with his highly personalized imprint on diplomacy, Modi thus far has relied on bilateral summits to open new avenues for cooperation and collaboration. Diplomacy alone will not suffice. Sirisena, for example, makes his first official visits to Beijing and Islamabad soon after hosting Modi.

To prevent Chinese military encirclement, India needs to significantly accelerate naval modernization. It must build sufficient naval prowess to potentially interdict Chinese SLOCs in the Indian Ocean and hold the Chinese economy hostage if a Himalayan war were thrust upon it again. A major holdback of tanker traffic in wartime would be a crippling jolt to the Chinese economy, though it might not alter the war’s outcome.

Even as the Chinese military keeps Indian ground forces busy in peacetime by staging Himalayan border incursions and other flare-ups, the oil and liquefied gas flowing from the Gulf and Africa to China pass through the Indian Ocean unmolested and unimpeded. Over 80% of China’s oil imports pass through the Malacca Strait chokepoint. Boosting SLOC interdiction capability would allow the Indian Navy to dominate key maritime routes and help improve the Chinese military’s behaviour along the Himalayas.

The contest for major influence in the Indian Ocean is pivotal to the success of China’s strategy to fashion a Sino-centric Asia. This is a contest India cannot afford to lose.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2015.

A Silk Glove for China’s Iron Fist

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Iron fist

A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

For years, China has sought to encircle South Asia with a “string of pearls”: a network of ports connecting its eastern coast to the Middle East that would boost its strategic clout and maritime access. Not surprisingly, India and others have regarded this process with serious concern.

Now, however, China is attempting to disguise its strategy, claiming that it wants to create a twenty-first-century maritime Silk Road to improve trade and cultural exchange. But friendly rhetoric can scarcely allay concern in Asia and beyond that China’s strategic goal is to dominate the region.

That concern is well founded. Simply put, the Silk Road initiative is designed to make China the hub of a new order in Asia and the Indian Ocean region. Indeed, by working to establish its dominance along major trade arteries, while instigating territorial and maritime disputes with several neighbors, China is attempting to redraw Asia’s geopolitical map.

The strategic dimension of the maritime Silk Road is underscored by the fact that the People’s Liberation Army has led the debate on the subject. The PLA National Defense University’s Major General Ji Mingkui argues that the initiative can help China to craft a “new image” and “win influence,” especially as the US “pivot” to Asia “loses momentum.”

Yet PLA experts remain eager to disavow the Silk Road initiative’s link with the “string of pearls.” Instead, they compare it to the fifteenth-century expeditions of Zheng He, a Chinese eunuch admiral who led a fleet of treasure ships to Africa. According to Central Military Commission member Sun Sijing, Zheng used the ancient Silk Road without seizing “one inch of land” or seeking “maritime hegemony” (though history attests to his use of military force – for example, executing local rulers – to control maritime chokepoints).

In reality, little distinguishes the maritime Silk Road from the “string of pearls.” Though China is employing ostensibly peaceful tactics to advance the initiative, its primary goal is not mutually beneficial cooperation; it is strategic supremacy. Indeed, the Silk Road is integral to President Xi Jinping’s “China dream” ambitions, which entail restoring China’s past glory and status.

China, especially under Xi, has often used aid, investment, and other economic leverage to compel its neighbors to deepen their economic dependence on – and expand their security cooperation with – the People’s Republic. Xi’s use of a $40 billion Silk Road Fund and the new China-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to develop the maritime Silk Road reflects this approach.

Already, China is constructing ports, railroads, highways, and pipelines in the region’s littoral states, not only to facilitate mineral-resource imports and exports of Chinese manufactured goods, but also to advance its strategic military goals. For example, China concluded a multi-billion dollar deal with Pakistan to develop the port at Gwadar, owing to its strategic location at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, which more than offsets the port’s limited commercial potential.

Twice last autumn, Chinese attack submarines docked at Sri Lanka’s newly opened, $500 million container terminal at Colombo Harbor – built and majority-owned by Chinese state companies. China has now embarked on a $1.4-billion project to build a sprawling complex roughly the size of Monaco on reclaimed land in Colombo – a “port city” that will become a major stop on China’s nautical “road.”

Zhou Bo, an honorary fellow with the PLA Academy of Military Science, admits that China’s mega-projects “will fundamentally change the political and economic landscape of the Indian Ocean,” while presenting China as a “strong yet benign” power. This is important, because the new Asian order will be determined less by developments in East Asia, where Japan is determined to block China’s rise, than by events in the Indian Ocean, where China is chipping away at India’s longstanding dominance.

India is certainly suspicious of China’s behavior. But China is treading carefully enough that it can continue to advance its goals, without spooking its intended quarry. The American academic John Garver depicted it best using a Chinese fable: “A frog in a pot of lukewarm water feels quite comfortable and safe. He does not notice as the water temperature slowly rises until, at last, the frog dies and is thoroughly cooked.”

Seen in this light, it is not surprising that China has invited India to join the maritime Silk Road initiative. The aim is not only to help calm a suspicious neighbor, but also to slow the development of India’s strategic ties with the US and Japan.

China’s plans for the Silk Road combine economic, diplomatic, energy, and security objectives in an effort to create an expansive network of linked facilities to boost trade, aid strategic penetration, and permit an increasingly potent and active submarine force to play an expanded role. In the process, China aims to fashion an Asian order based not on a balance of power with the US, but on its own hegemony. Only a concert of democracies can block this strategy.

Reshaping India’s diplomacy

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY

January 18, 2015, The Japan Times

Building closer ties with important democracies has become the leitmotif of his foreign policy. For example, his much-photographed bear hug with Abe in Kyoto has come to symbolize the dawn of an alliance between the world’s largest democracy and Asia’s oldest (and richest) democracy. Likewise, Modi is enhancing defense and economic cooperation with Israel, with India ordering more Israeli arms in the past six months than in the previous three years.

When Modi won the election, his critics claimed the nationalist would pursue a doctrinaire approach in office. However, one trademark of Modi’s diplomacy is that it is shorn of ideology, with pragmatism being the hallmark.

Nothing better illustrates his pragmatism than the priority he has accorded to restoring momentum to India’s relationship with America.

There was concern in Washington that Modi might nurse a grudge against the United States and keep American officials at arm’s length. After all, the U.S. continued to deny Modi a visa over his alleged involvement in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat even after he had been cleared of any wrongdoing by an inquiry appointed by India’s Supreme Court. Yet, when he won the election, Obama was quick to telephone him and invite him to the White House — an invitation Modi gladly accepted, given the critical importance of America to India.

Modi’s White House visit last September helped him to establish a personal rapport with Obama. Obama’s impending India visit represents both a thank you to Modi for rising above personal umbrage and an effort to lift the U.S.-India relationship to a higher level of engagement through the major new opportunities being opened up for American businesses by Modi’s commitment to pro-market economic policies and defense modernization.

The U.S. already conducts more military exercises with India than with any other country. And in recent years, it has quietly overtaken Russia as the largest arms supplier to India.

Another example of Modi’s pragmatism is his effort to befriend China. He has invited Chinese investment in his plan to modernize India’s infrastructure, especially railroads, power stations and industrial parks. China’s foreign direct investment in India, however, remains trifling, with Chinese companies preferring to import primary commodities from India while exporting an avalanche of finished products.

China represents Modi’s diplomatic gamble, as was highlighted when Xi’s visit to India four months ago coincided with Chinese military incursions into India’s Ladakh region and a Chinese submarine’s visit to Sri Lanka. The submarine visit underscored an emerging new threat to Indian security from the Indian Ocean, a region where China has been building ports and other infrastructure projects to extend its strategic clout and build naval presence.

Another regional adversary, Pakistan, poses a different set of challenges for Modi, given the Pakistani military’s use of terrorist proxies. More than six years after the horrific Mumbai terrorist attacks, Pakistan has yet to begin the trial of the seven Pakistani perpetrators in its custody. Adding insult to injury, Pakistani authorities recently helped United Nations-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed — the architect of the Mumbai attacks — to stage a large public rally in Lahore city, including by running special trains to ferry in participants.

Modi’s Pakistan policy blends a firm response to border provocations with friendly signals. For example, he invited his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, to his inauguration and asked Indian schools to honor the victims of the recent Peshawar attack in Pakistan with a two-minute silence.

At home, Modi has shaken up the diffident foreign-policy establishment with his proactive approach and readiness to break with conventional methods and shibboleths. By taking bold new tacks, Modi is charting a course to boost India’s strategic influence both in its neighborhood and the wider world.

Indeed, Modi has put his stamp on foreign policy faster than any predecessor, other than the country’s first post-independence prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Yet Modi appears to have no intent of enunciating a Modi doctrine in foreign policy. He wants his actions to define his policy trademarks.

His actions have already started speaking for themselves — from his moves to engineer stronger partnerships with Japan and Israel (countries critical to Indian interests but which also courted him even as the U.S. targeted him) to his mortars-for-bullet response to Pakistan’s ceasefire violations. His firm stand at the World Trade Organization on food stockpiling, central to India’s food security, demonstrated that he will stand up even to a powerful, rich nations’ cabal.

More significantly, Modi’s policy appears geared to move India from its long-held nonalignment to a contemporary, globalized practicality. This means from being nonaligned, India is likely to become multialigned, even as it tilts more toward the U.S. and other democracies in Asia and Europe. Yet, importantly, India will continue to chart its own independent course. For example, unlike Japan, it has refused to join American-led financial sanctions against Russia.

After a long era of ad hoc and reactive Indian diplomacy, the new clarity and vision Modi represents is widely seen as a welcome change for India.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).

Pakistan’s New Leaf?

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Brahma Chellaney

A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

As U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton bluntly told Pakistan in 2011 that “you can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbors.” But her warning (“eventually those snakes are going to turn on” their keeper), like those of other American officials over the years, including presidents and CIA chiefs, went unheeded.

17pakistan-hp-slide-03-articleLarge-v2The snake-keeper’s deepening troubles were exemplified by the recent massacre of 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar by militants no longer under the control of Pakistan’s generals. Such horror is the direct result of the systematic manner in which the Pakistani military establishment has reared jihadist militants since the 1980s as an instrument of state policy against India and Afghanistan. By continuing to nurture terrorist proxies, the Pakistani military has enabled other militants to become entrenched in the country, making the culture of jihad pervasive.

The Peshawar massacre was not the first time that the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism became a terror victim. But the attack has underscored how the contradiction between battling one set of terror groups while shielding others for cross-border undertakings has hobbled the Pakistani state.

As a result, the question many are asking is whether, in the wake of the Peshawar killings, the Pakistani military, including its rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, will be willing to break its ties with militant groups and dismantle the state-run terrorist infrastructure. Unfortunately, developments in recent months, including in the aftermath of the Peshawar attack, offer little hope.

On the contrary, with the military back in de facto control, the civilian government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is in no position to shape developments. And, despite the increasing blowback from state-aided militancy, the generals remain too wedded to sponsoring terrorist groups that are under United Nations sanctions – including Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) and the Haqqani network – to reverse course.

Reliance on jihadist terror has become part of the generals’ DNA. Who can forget their repeated denial that they knew the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden before he was killed by US naval commandos in a 2011 raid on his safe house in the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad? Recently, in an apparent slip, a senior civilian official – Sharif’s national security adviser, Sartaj Aziz – said that Pakistan should do nothing to stop militants who do not intend to harm Pakistan.

The nexus among military officers, jihadists, and hardline nationalists has created a nuclear-armed “Terroristan” that will most likely continue to threaten regional and global security. State-reared terror groups and their splinter cells, some now operating autonomously, have morphed into a hydra. Indeed, as the country’s civilian political institutions corrode, its nuclear arsenal, ominously, is becoming increasingly unsafe.

Pakistan is already a quasi-failed state. Its anti-India identity is no longer sufficient to stem its mounting contradictions, which are most apparent in the two incarnations of the Taliban: the Afghan Taliban, which is the Pakistani military’s surrogate, and the Pakistani Taliban – formally known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – which is the military’s nemesis. Pakistan also provides sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban’s chief, Mullah Mohammad Omar (and also harbors a well-known international fugitive, the Indian organized crime boss Dawood Ibrahim).

Meanwhile, Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the ISI’s largest surrogate terror organization, LeT, remains the generals’ darling, leading a public life that mocks America’s $10 million bounty on his head and the UN’s inclusion of him on a terrorist list. Earlier this month, Pakistani authorities aided a large public rally by Saeed in Lahore, including by running special trains to ferry in participants, so that the architect of the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack (among many others) could project himself as some sort of messiah of the Pakistani people.

Yet none of that stopped Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, Raheel Sharif, and ISI Director-General Rizwan Akhter from rushing to Kabul after the Peshawar attack to demand that President Ashraf Ghani and the U.S.-led military coalition extradite TTP chief Mullah Fazlullah or allow Pakistani forces to go in after him. In other words, they seek the help of Afghanistan and the U.S. to fight the Pakistani Taliban while unflinchingly aiding the Afghan Taliban, which has been killing Afghan and NATO troops.

Such is the generals’ Janus-faced approach to terrorism that six years after the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan has yet to try the seven Pakistani perpetrators in its custody. Indeed, under the cover of indignation over the Peshawar attack, the leading suspect in the case – UN-designated terrorist Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who served as LeT’s operations chief – secured bail. International outrage soon forced Pakistan to place him in preventive detention for up to three months.

Those who believe that the Peshawar massacre might serve as a wakeup call to the Pakistani military should ask why the generals have ignored hundreds of earlier wakeup calls. Despite the blowback imperiling Pakistan’s future, the generals show no sign that they have tired of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.

The international community should stop placing its hope in some abrupt change of heart on the generals’ part. Creating a moderate Pakistan at peace with itself can only be a long-term project, because it hinges on empowering a feeble civil society and, ultimately, reining in the military’s role in politics. As long as the military, intelligence, and nuclear establishments remain unaccountable to the civilian government, Pakistan, the region, and the world will continue to be at risk from the jihadist snake pit that the country has become.

© Project Syndicate, 2014.

From a nonaligned to multialigned India?

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Brahma Chellaney, Nikkie Asian Review

When a country hosts Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama in rapid succession for bilateral meetings, it demonstrates its ability to forge partnerships with rival powers and broker cooperative international approaches in a changing world. This is exactly what India is doing under Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a display of diplomatic footwork that recently prompted the Russian ambassador to India, Alexander Kadakin, to publicly remark: “India is a rich fiancee with many bridegrooms.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of their meeting in New Delhi on Dec. 11. Modi will receive U.S. President Barack Obama in January. © Reuters

At a time when a new U.S.-Russia Cold War appears to be brewing, Modi — just after hosting Putin — will receive Obama in January, marking the first time an American president will have the honor of being the chief guest at India’s Jan. 26 Republic Day parade. The charismatic Modi, who won Time magazine’s recent reader poll for “Person of the Year” with his rock star-like following, has also sought to strengthen bilateral partnerships with other key players, including Japan, Australia and Israel. For example, his much-photographed bear hug with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has come to symbolize the dawn of an alliance between the world’s largest democracy and Asia’s oldest (and richest) democracy.

Since sweeping to power in May in India’s biggest election victory in a generation, Modi has shaken up the country’s reactive and diffident foreign-policy establishment with his proactive approach and readiness to break with conventional methods and shibboleths. The Modi foreign policy appears geared to move India from its long-held nonalignment to a contemporary, globalized practicality.

In essence, this means that India — a founding leader of the nonaligned movement — is likely to become multialigned. Building close partnerships with major powers to pursue a variety of interests in diverse settings will not only enable India to advance its core priorities but will also help to preserve strategic autonomy, in keeping with its longstanding preference for policy independence.

In the last quarter century, the world witnessed the most profound technological, economic and geopolitical changes in the most compressed timeframe in modern history. But much of India’s last 25 years was characterized by political weakness and drift, resulting in erosion of its regional and extra-regional clout. For example, the gap in power and stature between China and India widened significantly in this period. A 2013 essay in the journal Foreign Affairs, entitled “India’s Feeble Foreign Policy,” focused on how India is resisting its own rise, as if political drift had turned the country into its own worst enemy.

Against this background, Modi — widely known for his decisiveness — has made revitalizing the country’s economic and military security his main priority. So far he has made more impact in diplomacy than in domestic policy, a realm where he must prove he can help transform India. Nevertheless, Modi’s focus on the grand chessboard of geopolitics to underpin national interests suggests a strategic bent of mind.

Modi indeed has surprised many by investing considerable political capital in high-powered diplomacy so early in his term, even though he came to office with little foreign-policy experience. He has succeeded in putting his stamp on foreign policy faster than any predecessor, other than the country’s first post-independence prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Foreign policy pragmatist

Modi’s actions thus far suggest a clear intent to recoup India’s regional losses and to boost its global standing. One trademark of Modi’s foreign policy is that it is shorn of ideology, with pragmatism being the hallmark. In fact, India’s new leader has demonstrated a knack to employ levelheaded ideas in both domestic and foreign policies to lay out a nondoctrinaire vision and to win public support. For example, he has launched a “Make in India” mission to turn the country into an export-driven powerhouse like China and Japan and to transform it from being the world’s largest importer of weapons to becoming an important arms exporter. Modi’s clarity and vision, coming after a long era of ad hoc, reactive Indian diplomacy, is seen as a welcome change for India.

To be sure, the Modi foreign policy faces major regional challenges, exemplified by an arc of failing, revanchist or scofflaw states around India. India’s neighborhood is so chronically troubled that the country faces serious threats from virtually all directions. This tyranny of geography demands that India evolve more dynamic and innovative approaches to diplomacy and national defense. India must actively involve itself regionally to help influence developments, which is what Modi is attempting to do.

A broader and more fundamental challenge for him is to carefully balance closer cooperation with major players in a way that advances India’s economic and security interests, without New Delhi being forced to choose one power over another. One balancing act, for example, is to restore momentum to a flagging relationship with Moscow while boosting ties with the U.S., which has quietly overtaken Russia as the largest arms supplier to India.

Even though Modi told Putin during a summit of BRICS countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — in Brazil in July that “every person, every child” in India knows Russia is the country’s “biggest friend,” the reality is that the India-Russia camaraderie of the Cold War era has been replaced by India-U.S. bonhomie. Modi must stem the new risks as Russia moves closer to India’s strategic rivals — selling top-of-the-line weapon systems to China and signing a military-cooperation agreement with Pakistan in November.

Despite the challenges confronting Modi, India seems set to become multialigned, while tilting more toward the U.S. and other democracies in Europe and Asia. Yet, importantly, India will also continue to chart its own independent course. For example, it has rebuffed U.S. pressure to join American-led financial sanctions against Russia and instead has publicly emphasized “the need to defuse Cold War-like tensions that are increasingly manifesting themselves in global relations.” A multialigned India pursuing omnidirectional cooperation for mutual benefit with key players will be better positioned to expand its strategic influence and promote peace and cooperation in international relations.

Because of its geographical location, India is the natural bridge between the West and the East, and between Europe and Asia. Through forward thinking and a dynamic foreign policy, India can truly play the role of a facilitator and soother between the East and the West, including serving as a link between the competing demands of the developed and developing worlds. At a time of heightened geopolitical tensions, the world needs such a bridge-builder.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” the winner of the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award.

Tibet core to Sino-Indian ties

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Japan Times

Despite booming two-way trade, strategic discord and rivalry between China and India is sharpening. At the core of their divide is Tibet, an issue that fuels territorial disputes, border tensions and water feuds.

The Tibetan plateau is Asia’s “water tower.” © Brahma Chellaney, “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013).

The Tibetan plateau is Asia’s “water tower.”          © Brahma Chellaney, Water: Asia’s New Battleground (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013).

Beijing says Tibet is a core issue for China. In truth, Tibet is the core issue in Beijing’s relations with countries like India, Nepal and Bhutan that traditionally did not have a common border with China. These countries became China’s neighbors after it annexed Tibet, a sprawling, high-altitude plateau where, after waves of genocide since the 1950s, ecocide now looms large.

Take China’s relations with India: Beijing itself highlights Tibet as the core issue with that country by laying claim to large chunks of Indian land on the basis of purported Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links, rather than any professed Han Chinese connection. Indeed, since 2006, Beijing has a new name — “South Tibet” — for the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is three times the size of Taiwan and twice as large as Switzerland.

Tibet historically was the buffer that separated the Chinese and Indian civilizations. Ever since Communist China, in one of its first acts, gobbled up that buffer with India, Tibet has remained the core matter with India.

In the latest reminder of this reality, President Xi Jinping brought Chinese military incursions across the Indo-Tibetan border on his India visit in September. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government responded to the border provocations by permitting Tibetan exiles to stage protests during Xi’s New Delhi stay.

In response to China’s increasing belligerence — reflected in a rising number of Chinese border incursions and Beijing’s new assertiveness on the two Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir — India since 2010 has stopped making any reference to Tibet being part of China in a joint statement with China. It has also linked any endorsement of “one China” to a reciprocal Chinese commitment to a “one India.”

Yet the Chinese side managed to bring in Tibet via the back door in the Modi-Xi joint statement, which recorded India’s appreciation of the help extended by the “local government of Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China” to Indian pilgrims visiting Tibet’s Kailash-Mansarover, a mountain-and-lake duo sacred to four faiths: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Tibet’s indigenous religion, Bon. Several major rivers, including the Indus and the Brahmaputra, originate around this holy place.

Actually, a succession of Indian prime ministers has blundered on Tibet. Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954 ceded India’s British-inherited extraterritorial rights in Tibet and implicitly accepted the plateau’s annexation by China without any quid pro quo. Under the terms of the 1954 accord, India withdrew its “military escorts” from Tibet and handed over to China the postal, telegraph and telephone services it operated there.

But in 2003, Atal Bihari Vajpayee went further than any predecessor and formally surrendered India’s Tibet card. In a statement he signed with the Chinese premier, Vajpayee used the legal term “recognize” to accept what China deceptively calls the Tibet Autonomous Region as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.”

Vajpayee’s blunder opened the way for China to claim Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet,” a term it coined to legitimize its attempt at rolling annexation. In fact, since 2010, Beijing has also questioned India’s sovereignty over the state of Jammu and Kashmir, one-fifth of which is under Chinese occupation and another one-third under Pakistani control.

During Xi’s visit, it was by agreeing to open a circuitous alternative route for pilgrims via the Himalayan Indian state of Sikkim that Beijing extracted the appreciation from India to China’s Tibet government. Given that the sacred Kailash-Mansarovar site is located toward the western side of the Tibet-India border, the new route entails a long, arduous detour — pilgrims must first cross eastern Himalayas and then head toward western Himalayas through a frigid, high-altitude terrain.

One obvious reason China chose the roundabout route via Sikkim is that the only section of the Indo-Tibetan border it does not dispute is the Sikkim-Tibet frontier. Beijing recognizes the 1890 Anglo-Sikkim Convention, which demarcated the 206-km Sikkim-Tibet frontier, yet it paradoxically rejects as a colonial relic Tibet’s 1914 McMahon Line with India, though not with Myanmar.

The more important reason is that China is seeking to advance its strategic interests in the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction, which overlooks the narrow neck of land that connects India’s northeast with the rest of the country. Should the “chicken’s neck” ever be blocked, the northeast would be cut off from the Indian mainland. In the event of a war, China could seek to do just that.

Two developments underscore China’s strategic designs. Beijing is offering Bhutan a territorial settlement in which it would cede most of its other claims in return for being given the strategic area that directly overlooks India’s chokepoint. At the same time, Beijing is working to insidiously build influence in Sikkim, including by shaping a Sino-friendly Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

This sect controls important Indian monasteries along the Tibetan border and is headed by the China-anointed but now India-based Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley. The Indian government has barred Ogyen Trinley — who raised suspicion in 1999 by escaping from Tibet with astonishing ease — from visiting the sect’s headquarters in Sikkim. Indian police in 2011 seized large sums of Chinese currency from his office.

India, however, has permitted the Mandarin-speaking Ogyen Trinley to receive envoys sent by Beijing. In recent years, he has met Han Buddhist figures as well as Xiao Wunan, the effective head of the Asia-Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation. This dubious foundation, created to project China’s soft power, has unveiled plans with questionable motives to invest $3 billion at Lord Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal — Lumbini, located just 22 km from the open border with India.

Since coming up to power six months ago, Modi has pursued a nimble foreign policy. One key challenge he faces is how to build leverage against China, which largely sets the bilateral agenda, yet savors a galloping, $36-plus billion trade surplus with India.

Moreover, past Indian blunders on Tibet have helped narrow the focus of Himalayan disputes to what China claims. The spotlight now is on China’s Tibet-linked claim to Arunachal, rather than on Tibet’s status itself.

To correct that, Modi must find ways to add elasticity and nuance to India’s Tibet stance.

One way for India to gradually reclaim its leverage over the Tibet issue is to start emphasizing that its acceptance of China’s claim over Tibet hinged on a grant of genuine autonomy to that region. But instead of granting autonomy, China has make Tibet autonomous in name only, bringing the region under its tight political control and unleashing increasing repression.

India must not shy away from urging China to begin a process of reconciliation and healing in Tibet in its own interest and in the interest of stable Sino-Indian relations. China’s dam-building frenzy is another reminder that Tibet is at the heart of the India-China divide.

That a settlement of the Tibet issue is imperative for regional stability and for improved Sino-Indian relations should become India’s consistent diplomatic refrain. India must also call on Beijing to help build harmonious bilateral relations by renouncing its claims to Indian-administered territories.

Through such calls, and by using expressions like the “Indo-Tibetan border” and by identifying the plateau to the north of its Himalayas as Tibet (not China) in its official maps, India can subtly reopen Tibet as an outstanding issue, without having to formally renounce any of its previously stated positions.

Tibet ceased to be a political buffer when China occupied it in 1950-51. But Tibet can still turn into a political bridge between China and India. For that to happen, China must start a process of political reconciliation in Tibet, repudiate claims to Indian territories on the basis of their alleged Tibetan links, and turn water into a source of cooperation, not conflict.

Brahma Chellaney, a regular contributor to The Japan Times, is the author of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).

© The Japan Times, 2014.

The Centrality of Nuclear Weapons

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Brahma Chellaney

Paper presented to the Valdai Discussion Group, November 2014

downloadPower shifts are an inexorable phenomenon in history. The global power structure is not static but continually evolves. The international institutional structure, however, has remained largely static since the mid-twentieth century rather than evolving with the changing power realities and challenges. Reforming and restructuring the international system poses the single biggest challenge to preserving global peace, stability, and continued economic growth. A twenty-first world cannot remain indefinitely saddled with twentieth-century institutions and rules.

Although the world has changed fundamentally since the end of the World War II, one factor remains the same — nuclear weapons still represent power and force in international relations. Despite major military innovations and the deployment of an array of new weapon systems, nuclear weapons’ relevance or role has not changed. Indeed, five key points stand out:

1. Nuclear weapons have strategic and political utility. Think of Britain and France without nuclear weapons. They would become irrelevant, if not in international relations, then at least at the United Nations. Britain and France value nuclear weapons for their political utility. Russia must take comfort in the strategic utility of these weapons; without them, the United States would have assembled a “coalition of the willing” to take on Russia in response to the developments in Crimea and Ukraine.

Such is the strategic utility of nuclear weapons that U.S. President Barack Obama was quick to rule out the military option against Russia after the referendum in Crimea. He even distanced the U.S. from the “Budapest Memorandum,” the pact that was signed in 1994 to provide Ukraine security assurances about its territorial integrity in exchange for its relinquishing of the nuclear arsenal. After all, Russia remains a nuclear superpower.

2. Nuclear proliferation and the utility of nuclear weapons are linked. It is the very utility of nuclear weapons that serves as the main proliferation incentive. This means that the proliferation incentive will remain strong as long as nuclear weapons exist.

To be sure, the international nuclear nonproliferation regime has progressively become very stringent since the 1970s. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards in non-nuclear-weapons states, for example, have gone from being site-specific to becoming “full-scope” (comprehensive) in nature. The IAEA’s Additional Protocol empowers its inspectors to check even a non-nuclear facility in a non-nuclear-weapons state. There isn’t much room to further tighten the nonproliferation regime.

Still, the stringent nonproliferation regime has made proliferation very difficult or driven it underground. There are limits to what underground proliferation can accomplish. But there are also limits to what coercive enforcement of nonproliferation norms can achieve.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which came into force in 1970, was originally intended to prevent countries like Japan, West Germany and Italy from acquiring nuclear weapons. Japan, for example, did not ratify the treaty until 1976 — eight years after the NPT was concluded, and six years after the pact took effect. West Germany and Italy deposited their instruments of ratification only in 1975. After France conducted its first nuclear test in 1960 in the Sahara, West Germany was considered the most likely candidate to follow suit. West Germany first tried to block the conclusion of the NPT before seeking to influence the outcome of the negotiations.

The NPT also became the foundation for a number of regional nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) agreements, which include the Treaty of Tlatelolco (1969), establishing a NWFZ in Latin America’ the Treaty of Rarotonga (1986) in South Pacific; the Treaty of Bangkok (1997) signed by ASEAN members; the Treaty of Pelindaba (2009); and the Central Asian NWFZ (2009), which has all post-Soviet republics in Central Asia as its members. Regional NWFZ agreements were designed to strengthen the nonproliferation regime. Today, the NWFZs cover almost half of the world and include 115 states plus Mongolia, whose status as a one-state nuclear-weapon-free zone is recognized by UN General Assembly Resolution 3261. The effectiveness of the NWFZs depends on the NPT as the core foundation of the nonproliferation regime.

The challenges to the NPT, however, have been coming from outside the list of its original targets. NPT’s first test, in fact, came early — in May 1974 when India carried out a “peaceful nuclear explosion” (PNE). As India was a non-signatory and indeed had vowed to stay out of the NPT when the treaty was concluded, the test involved no breach of legal obligations. However, after the Indian test, PNEs quickly fell out of international favor, although the U.S. and the Soviet Union both had large PNE programs.

Looking back, the NPT has been a remarkably successful treaty, limiting nuclear-weapons states to a small number. Yet the NPT’s long-term challenge comes from the dichotomy it creates — that it is morally and legally reprehensible for most countries to pursue nuclear ambitions but morally and legally alright for a few states to rely on (and modernize their) nuclear weapons for security.

Today, the spotlight is on the nuclear programs in two states — Iran and North Korea and Iran — as well as on the potential nexus between terrorism and WMD.

North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un won’t give up the nuclear option because he understands the utility of nukes. After all, the United States used aerial bombardment to overthrow ruler Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, eight years after he surrendered Libya’s nuclear option in 2003. The big question today is whether Iran, as part of a rapprochement with the United States, would agree to at least freeze its nuclear program, if not give up its nuclear option.

3. Nuclear disarmament has fallen by the wayside. It has become little more than a pious slogan. The United Nations’ Conference on Disarmament (CD), for example, has been without real work for 18 years now.

It is significant that nuclear disarmament fell off the global agenda after the NPT was indefinitely extended in 1995. The NPT was originally conceived as a 25-year bargain between nuclear-weapons states and non-nuclear-weapons states. But as a result of the 1995 action, the treaty has become permanent. This action eliminated international pressure on the nuclear-weapons states in regard to their arsenals.

Not only has nuclear disarmament fallen by the wayside since, there is also little international attention on the nuclear-modernization programs currently underway. This means the five NPT nuclear powers and the three non-NPT nuclear-weapons states of India, Israel and Pakistan can pursue nuclear modernization with no real constraints.

Take Obama, who, having championed “a nuclear-free world,” has quietly pursued plans for an extensive expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, already the world’s most-expensive and most-sophisticated nuclear deterrent. As the New York Times reported on September 22, 2014, the United States plans to spend about $355 billion on nuclear weapons over the next 10 years, and up to $1 trillion over 30 years. Spending so much more money on nuclear weapons is simply not justified, given the changing nature of security threats. In fact, in mid-2014, an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal commission co-chaired by former Secretary of Defense William Perry and retired Gen. John Abizaid called the Obama administration’s plans to expand the nuclear arsenal “unaffordable” and a threat to “needed improvements in conventional forces.” By pursuing a slightly less ambitious nuclear-modernization program, the United States can easily save billions of dollars and still keep the “triad” of delivery systems armed with the same number of nuclear warheads planned under the 2010 New START Treaty.

The real “success” of the NPT has been in reinforcing the system of extended deterrence by enabling countries such as those in NATO and others like Australia, Japan and South Korea to continue to rely on the U.S. for nuclear-umbrella protection. Minus the NPT, these countries would have been the most-likely candidates to go nuclear because they also happen to be the most-capable states technologically. So, the effect of the NPT has to strengthen extended deterrence.

Today, a key question that arises is whether any of the countries ensconced under the U.S. nuclear umbrella would be willing to forgo the benefits of extended deterrence in order to help lower the utility of nuclear weapons and give a boost to the cause of nuclear disarmament. After all, the security imperatives that prompted such countries more than half a century ago to seek nuclear-umbrella protection no longer are valid in a post-Cold War world.

To be sure, some of these states, especially Japan, have seen their regional security environment deteriorate and thus can ill-afford to renounce reliance on U.S. nuclear-umbrella protection. However, the majority of states basking under the U.S. nuclear umbrella find themselves today in relatively benign security environment. They extend from Canada and Norway to Portugal and Australia. Such states could take the lead to gradually wean themselves away from relying on extended nuclear deterrence.

4. Nuclear might provides the cover to some powers for engaging in acts that contravene global norms and international law. There are several examples of this.

For example, Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East, reinforced by its conventional-military superiority, emboldens it to act preemptively at times, or to employ disproportionate force, as was seen recently in Israel’s Gaza war, which was triggered by the Hamas’s firing of crude, home-made rockets with no guidance.

Consider another example: Pakistan’s military generals export terror by playing nuclear poker. They export terrorism from behind the nuclear shield so as to prevent retaliation against their roguish actions.

One can argue that nuclear might also drives America’s interventionist impulse. America’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate president, Barack Obama, has been more at ease waging wars than in waging peace, as underlined by the launch of his presidency’s seventh military campaign in a Muslim country. His new war in Syria — which he initiated by bypassing the United Nations — is just the latest action of the United States that mocks international law. Other such actions in the past 15 years include the bombing of Serbia, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq without UN Security Council authority, Gaddafi’s overthrow, the aiding of an insurrection in Syria, CIA renditions of terror suspects, and National Security Agency’s Orwellian surveillance program. Yet, paradoxically, Obama has escalated a sanctions campaign against Russia in the name of upholding international law.

5. In our rapidly changing world, most technologies tend to become obsolescent in a decade or two. But more than seven decades after they were invented, nuclear weapons still remain the preeminent mass-destruction technology.

Nuclear arsenals may have no deterrent effect on the pressing conflicts we face today. Yet, for the foreseeable future, nuclear weapons, with their unparalleled destructive capacity, will remain at the center of international power and force. Nuclear weapons, as the 2002 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review stated, will continue to play a “critical role” because they possess “unique properties.”

However — a century after chemical arms were introduced in World War I and nearly seven decades following the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the world is at the threshold of new lethal and precision weapons, as underlined by the advent of information weapons, anti-satellite weapons, and the extension of arms race to outer space and cyberspace.

The aforementioned points indicate that nuclear weapons will remain at the core of international power for the foreseeable future. Still, there is a widely held international misperception about the number of countries that rely on nuclear weapons for security. Their number is not just nine (the five NPT nuclear powers, the three non-NPT nuclear-weapons states of India, Israel and Pakistan, plus North Korea). A sizable number of additional countries rely on nuclear-umbrella protection — a fact often obscured.

Actually, the states that are currently ensconced under the U.S. nuclear umbrella number 30. Their number has been growing as part of the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In fact, the taproot of the ongoing U.S.-Russian tensions has been NATO’s aggressive expansion, including to the Baltics and the Balkans. Russia, however, drew a line in the sand when NATO announced in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO.”

The nuclear-umbrella protection provided by the U.S. extends to all members of NATO, a military alliance that has expanded from its original 12 members in 1949 to 28 states now. In1997, three former Warsaw Pact members, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland, were invited to join NATO. Then, in 2004, seven more countries joined, including the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. And in 2009, Albania and Croatia became the latest entrants to NATO.

NATO’s nuclear umbrella primarily relies on American nuclear weapons. However, in a contingency, British and French nuclear arsenals are also expected to play a role.

In addition to NATO members, the U.S. provides nuclear-umbrella protection to Japan (as part of the bilateral Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security of 1960), to South Korea (a commitment from 1958 that was reaffirmed by America after North Korea tested a nuclear device in 2006), and to Australia under the terms of ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty of 1951).

The U.S. nuclear umbrella, however, no longer covers New Zealand, whose accession to the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (Treaty of Rarotonga, 1985) and subsequent enactment of domestic measures to comply with the imperatives of the zone triggered a bitter diplomatic row with the United States. By contrast, another ANZUS member, Australia, remains under the American nuclear umbrella despite being a party to the Rarotonga Treaty.

The security alliances of the Soviet Union (which broke up into 15 separate countries) and those of today’s Russia also are believed to have incorporated nuclear-umbrella protection, although Moscow has never acknowledged that publicly. However, after the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact and the breakup of the Soviet Union, half of the ex-Soviet allies and breakaway states have been absorbed by NATO as members. Russia currently has a military alliance — known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) — with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The creation of the Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in 2009 has only strengthened the dependence of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan (which are CSTO members) as well as of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan on the Russian nuclear umbrella.

Against this background, the number of states that rely directly or indirectly on nuclear weapons for their security is substantial. From an international-law standpoint, however, extending nuclear deterrence to non-nuclear-weapons states violates the spirit, if not the text, of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Some, of course, have argued that it actually breaches the text of the NPT. After all, NATO’s nuclear doctrine is pivoted on nuclear sharing, and the United States has deployed nuclear weapons for decades on the territory of non-nuclear NATO members, often without their knowledge during the Cold War years. Now, the U.S. is believed to have approximately 500 tactical nuclear warheads in five NATO states — Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Until 1991, American tactical nukes were deployed in South Korea. The North Korean nuclear threat makes redeployment of U.S. nuclear capabilities in South Korea theoretically conceivable.

Nuclear proliferation in the future will hinge largely on the credibility of U.S. security guarantees as perceived by America’s key, technologically advanced allies. The future of the NPT regime, despite its tremendous success thus far, looks anything but certain. The treaty’s main challenges now come from within, not from its non-parties — India, Israel and Pakistan, which never signed the NPT and have developed nuclear weapons.

Significantly, technological forces are now playing a greater role in shaping international geopolitics and power equations than at any other time in history. The growing tide of new innovations has not only shrunk the shelf-life of most technologies, but also accelerated the weaponization of science. Such are the challenges from the accelerated weaponization of science that instead of disarmament, rearmament today looms large on the horizon, with the arms race being extended to outer space and cyberspace.

Grand speeches about a world without nuclear weapons are crowd-pleasers at the United Nations. But in truth, pursuing disarmament is like chasing butterflies — enjoyable for some retired old men but never-ending. Until nuclear weapons remain the premier mass-destruction technology, disarmament will stay a mirage. The Chemical Weapons Convention became possible only when chemical weapons ceased to be militarily relevant for the major powers and instead threatened to become the poor state’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). If the rapid pace of technological change creates a new class of surgical-strike WMD that makes nuclear weapons less relevant, nuclear disarmament would likely take center-stage.

Nevertheless, it has become difficult to palm off nonproliferation as disarmament. What many members of the international community want to see are genuine efforts to substantially reduce nuclear arsenals and to erode the utility of WMD in national military strategies. Today, the world has a treaty (although not in force) that bans all nuclear testing — the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) — but no treaty to outlaw the use of nuclear weapons. In other words, those that are party to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) are prohibited from testing a nuclear weapon at home but are legally unencumbered to test the weapon by dropping it over some other state. This anomaly must be rectified.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi; a fellow of the Robert Bosch Stiftung in Berlin; and an affiliate with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is the author of nine books, including an international bestseller, Asian Juggernaut (Harper, New York, 2010).